When it rains in the desert it’s like an alarm going off, and then suddenly everything happens all at once. Billions of eggs are laid, billions of seeds germinate, the daytime air is one long buzz and the night is filled with creaks and croaks and hoots. And those baby critters all arrive hungry!
These are white-lined sphinx moths — the brown and cream and pink moth from September. As you can see, these caterpillars love purslane, and all of the purslane plants in the yard were completely covered with them. And — bonus! — the caterpillars had no interest at all in cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes or beans!
I had been getting an education all last month in the wonders of purslane (antioxidants!), and how to tell the edible kind from horse purslane, which has round leaves (see how these are more spatulate?). I had planned to pick the wild purslane in my yard for my own salads, but as soon as it showed up in the yard, it was overrun. But then, as these things go, within two days all of the leaves had been eaten off the plants, leaving only little pink stems, and the caterpillars had disappeared. Well, moved on into the scrub, anyway.
Most of my purslane-related education was coming from my local Facebook gardening group. The group’s moderators keep the focus on gardening tips, plant identification, problem diagnosis and a bit of botanical humor:
This group has been a great resource for what to plant and when and how. Many of the members are Arizona newbies like me, but there are also owners of local nurseries and even trained graduates of the local university’s Master Gardener program, so the advice is coming from experts. And they patiently identify each and every orb-weaver spider, and bug and datura plant for those who post pictures asking “What the heck is this thing I found in my yard?”
What is a bit dismaying is that so many of this type of post has the form “What the heck is this thing, and how do I kill it?” over pictures of caterpillars and horn worms, orb-weavers, tarantulas, mantises, mushrooms, etc. and for extra dissonance, they add “I’m doing ‘organic’ gardening, so I’d rather not use chemicals to kill them“. Really, people? LOL!
As I mentioned, the caterpillars were gone in two or three days, leaving the pink purslane stems on the ground. The caterpillars had zero interest in my garden vegetables. And guess what? The purslane all came back and there’s plenty left for a salad. Plus, there will be plenty of those wonderful sphinx moths to feast on the flowers in the front yard. Sure, caterpillars may squishy and yucky-looking(?), but they’re not really a threat to me, not worth killing.
Maybe I’m a radical on this point. On purpose, I moved into a rural neighborhood three lots away from the Saguaro National Forest. I consider myself the intruder here, since basically everything I find in the scrub part of my yard has been here — in some form — way longer than I have, and (I am hopeful) will be here long after I leave. I admit that the first time I was driving home and saw a softball-sized tarantula on the dirt road into my neighborhood, I did have some qualms about the nature and character of my new neighbors. But honestly? The yappy, yappy dogs my next-door neighbor keeps buying are far more annoying than this girl:
I actually sat for an hour watching this western diamondback rattlesnake, and eventually noticed that she was infinitely more patient and intent and “present” than I. She watched me the entire time, while I got bored and looked around at the grasshoppers and the moon and the changing afternoon light. She never moved at all, never changed position, never looked away. (This picture was taken two years ago.) More recently, last week while I was weeding near the compost bin, she (or a near relative) surprised me by moving away from where I was working. A pest? Something to be “gotten rid of”? No way! My compost heap never suffers from rodents; pack rats do not infest my car’s engine compartment. Rattlesnakes are my best defense against rodents.
There’s an old saying: Women get bitten by snakes because they don’t see the snake; Men get bitten because they do — and can’t resist messing with it. Sure enough, I did not see the rattlesnake when I was weeding until she moved away from me. I’m very glad she didn’t consider me a “pest” to be “gotten rid of”.
I had a similar encounter with a gopher snake one day while I was walking out to the arroyo in the neighbor’s property during the monsoons. This particular snake was very surprised to see me, and did the snake version of a double-take, hissing and swirling around, and ending up standing a foot in the air looking at me, deciding how much of a threat I was. It was really quite a show, as I took a (very!) slow step backwards, away from the snake. Gopher snakes actually like to pretend they’re rattlers, and vibrate their tails when they’re excited, even if there’s no noise associated with it. I got the full display that day. But when I stepped back, it decided that I wasn’t an immediate threat, and it dropped and scooted about 5 yards away, where it spied on me from behind a tree root as I walked away.
And honestly, even though I’m a bit snake-shy, this is the best of all:
This is a red coachwhip snake, lying across the dining-room window on my patio. You can see the ladder she used to climb up there, reflected in the window at the right. I later measured the window, and it’s five feet across. Once I saw a younger version of this snake, and it was pink and cream and black — similar colors again to the sphinx moth! As they age, the snake turns blackish above, although still cream below and at the end of the tail (zoom in to see). And look at this sweet face:
Coachwhip snakes not only eat rodents, but also keep the rattlesnakes away, so they’re perfect to have on the patio! I was very happy to see this snake here!